When Stephanie Montgomery lost her husband in 2004, she fell into a deep depression. She and her husband, affectionately known around town as Monty, had been married for 40 years. She had known him since she was 11 years old.
“The world crashed,” says Stephanie, now a volunteer at a crisis call center. “He had been my everything. He taught me how to ride a bike. We used to pick worms out of his grandmother’s backyard and collect them in jars. We graduated high school together. We went to college together. We traveled this great big country together.
“When Monty died, I felt like I died too.”
Stephanie’s daughter Lisa, a licensed therapist, encouraged her mother to seek help. She felt her mother was spiraling into the depths of her depression, and was worried that her mother would be so heartbroken staying in the home she’d shared with her husband for four decades, they might lose her too – to a broken heart, or something much more premature and worse.
Stephanie was resistant. But her daughter, trained in psychotherapy and filled with love and good intentions, gave her a list of suggestions she could work on while she gathered the courage to seek professional care. It was a list that didn’t feel extraordinarily overwhelming for Stephanie, but it was helpful.
1. Ask for help.
Asking for help isn’t just going to a therapist or a psychiatrist and attending formal therapy sessions. It means reaching out to friends, family, and coworkers too. Sharing your feelings with someone that you trust may be a cleansing exercise, and helps you accept that what you’re feeling is normal and nothing to be ashamed of. Depression is such a common ailment that you never know – the person you’re talking to may very know exactly how you feel and what you’re talking about.
When you ask for help, you’ll start to recognize that you’re not alone. You may even come to realize that your negative feelings are part of your depression – they may not even make up your current reality. This doesn’t mean that your sadness is imaginary. It just means there are other ways to look at things, and you may just be so sad that it’s hard to see the positive and the light.
Asking for help also means that you’re not isolating yourself from people. Isolation and loneliness have a destructive effect on your heart and your mind, and experts say that that connection you make with someone you trust and love, while you’re in depression, may be the strongest, most powerful therapy there is.
“I was living alone in the house – all the kids are grown – but when Monty died, I made sure I was alone in all other aspects,” says Stephanie. “I shut people out. I wouldn’t ask for help even when I had a flat tire. I let that car sit out there for two weeks. My kids would come by with food and I’d leave it in the fridge untouched. My grandbabies would be over and they’d want to play or help me rake leaves and I just wouldn’t bond with them.
“When I started Lisa’s list, I realized how profound a difference it would make in my daily life to just admit it: I needed help, and I needed to ask.”
Here are some of the ways you can ask for help:
1. Ask someone to listen. You may be sad about your entire circumstance, or you may be sad about the fact that your internet service is down and you can’t Skype with your favorite family member who lives across the country. When you need someone to talk to, ask someone to listen to you and hear out what you have to say.
2. Ask for help getting you to doctor’s appointments or other errands. When you are overwhelmed with sadness, it might be challenging for you to remember everything you have to do, even when you have it written down. Ask someone to help you stay on track of your schedule and especially important events, like therapy sessions.
3. Ask for help keeping you away from addictive substances or behaviors. When you are depressed, you might be at risk for developing some kind of addiction, whether it’s alcoholism, a shopping habit, or a gambling problem. Ask a friend to help you find healthy, positive hobbies.
4. Ask a friend to spend time with you. It could be as simple as attending a yoga class together, cooking dinner together, or catching a movie. Bonding with someone you like and appreciate will help lighten your load and keep you from getting too deep in your own thoughts.
2. Clean your home.
When you’re depressed, you feel worn down, tired, and frustrated. When your home is an explosive mess, you feel worn down, tired and frustrated. Believe it or not, science has proven that there’s a link between a clean home and happiness.
According to experts, clutter does have an effect on our self-esteem and overall sense of well-being. The more stuff, the more clutter, the more stressed out and depressed people feel, especially women. Articles have been published that state women in particular associate tidy homes with happy families, and those with so much clutter add to their anxiety and depression because they can’t seem to sort or get rid of things that have come to have some kind of sentimental value.
Houselogic.com recommends the following:
a. Adopt the “rule of five,” which means every time you walk through a room, put away five things. Alternatively, take five minutes every hour to de-clutter, so by the end of every day, you’ve actually cleaned for an entire hour without realizing it or putting in too much effort.
b. Clean and clear your kitchen sink.
c. Organize and put away family photos into an album.
d. Clear your fridge door – too many magnets, menus and calendars on a fridge cause anxiety and actually correlate to the amount of clutter throughout the house.
e. Will you miss certain items? Look around your house for things you haven’t used, noticed or loved in the last little while. Seal the box, leave it unmarked, and keep it in a closet where you won’t be tempted to open it. If at the end of the year you haven’t opened the box and used the items inside, donate the unopened box to the charity of your choice.
For Stephanie, cleaning turned out to be the most difficult – and most therapeutic – item on her list. For four months she kept Monty’s bathroom in the basement untouched; she left his towel exactly where he’d last hung it, and refused to launder the clothes he’d left in the hamper. The near-empty shampoo bottle stayed in the same spot, and his razors remained in the medicine cabinet, right beside his prescription medication.
“It was excruciating when I finally put his clothes away and cleared out that bathroom,” says Stephanie. “I don’t think I cried any less that day than the day he passed. But that night, I slept. I felt at peace.”
Exercise has been touted as a powerful way to improve depression and anxiety. As an all-natural treatment to help depression, it also combats heart disease, weight gain, and high blood pressure.
Why does exercise help depression? For starters, it releases endorphins, a feel-good chemical that the body produces when you work out at a high-intensity level. But even low level exercise is beneficial. It releases proteins called neurotrophic factors, which improves brain function and helps increase your mood and sense of well-being. According to an exercise and depression study, Harvard Medical School’s Dr. Michael Craig Miller, an assistant professor of psychiatry, has said that “in people who are depressed, neuroscientists have notices that the hippocampus in the brain – the region that helps regulate mood – is smaller.
“Exercise supports nerve cell growth in the hippocampus, improving nerve cell connections, which helps relieve depression.”
Stephanie was never one to work out by attending classes, and the idea of joining a gym was overwhelming for her. “At my age and with my social anxiety, it felt a little ridiculous to sign up at a gym with all these young people,” says Stephanie with a laugh. “But Monty and I did love to take walks together, so I started walking every day.” She also discovered she loved pickleball, a paddle sport that combines elements of tennis, table tennis and badminton.
4. Eat healthy.
While there’s no specific diet that has been created and proven to assist in alleviating or preventing symptoms of depression, eating a healthy diet has been found to help. Eating a diet that includes low-fat dairy foods, lean meats, fruits, vegetables, whole grains and legumes, as well as foods rich in antioxidants are reportedly good for those suffering with depression.
Stephanie’s daughter, Lisa, explains that in her practice, therapy, self-care and medication are the top three treatment options presented to patients, but that “a healthy diet is just as important as anything else.
“I’m trying to talk more about foods and why there’s a connection between your diet and emotional health,” says Lisa. “I’m not telling anyone that a poor diet leads to depression or that depression leads to bad eating, but a good diet and improved mood definitely have a link.
“When you eat well, you feel better.”
Journaling can have a profound impact on one’s mental health, and has been proven to help those suffering from symptoms of depression. Particularly those with a history of trauma, it’s been said that journaling assists in improving mental health though the examination of emotions we might be scared to face or confront. It helps us process events that have been hard to deal with, and negative or sad emotions that have been challenging to manage.
Journaling is very personal. It doesn’t have to be writing paragraph after paragraph in a spiral bound notebook; it can be jotting down one sentence a day that encompasses how you’ve felt over the last 10 to 12 hours. It could be made up of drawings. It could be typed, handwritten, or recorded on an audio player, if writing isn’t your thing. However you want to do it is correct; it’s your own personal way of reflecting on what’s happening inside you.
The Center for Journal Therapy website has a fantastic set of guidelines that might help you if you’re new to journaling. They recommend remembering the acronym WRITE.
W – What do you want to write about? What is happening in your life at the moment? What thoughts from the past keep coming back that are troubling or affecting you? Is there anything you’re avoiding, anything you’re scared to think about? What are your goals? Anything goes.
R – Review or Reflect. They suggest starting sentences with “I” statements (“I want…” or “I need…” or “I think…” or “I feel…”). Focus on what you’re writing and write what you’re feeling.
I – Investigate. Think about what you’re writing, why you’re writing it, and how you’re feeling as you’re writing it. If you want to keep writing but you feel you’ve run out of ideas, read what you’ve just written, and it might inspire you to keep going. If you need to step back and think on it for a bit, that’s okay too.
T – Time yourself to write for at least five minutes, or whatever goal you’ve set for yourself.
E – Exit with introspection. This means that you’ll read everything you wrote, reflect on it, and then summarize your thoughts and feelings in a sentence or two. You could say, “As I read this, I feel as…” or something similar. If you think of any action steps you’d like to take after journaling, you can write them down too – and you can do them when you’re comfortable and able.
If you want to explore these methods with a mental health professional, or want guidance on other things to do when you’re sad or depressed, visit www.hopetherapyandwellness.com.